Robert Lee, Professor of Political Science, Colorado College (U.S.)
Lee began by claiming that he was ill–suited to speak on Arkoun’s behalf. As a student of the politics of the Middle East, he said, he lacked the insight to Arkoun’s work that philosophers, anthropologists, semioticians and historians of Islam have. However, he has read much of Arkoun’s writing, heard him lecture, translated one of his books, written about the political implications of his work, and enjoyed his friendship.
Lee defended Arkoun against claims that he was an uncommitted scholar; despite Arkoun’s postmodernist terminology, his passion and the volume of his output belied a deeply felt commitment.
Lee explained Arkoun’s opposition to what he called “Islamic Reason,” the application of methodologies, based on Greek logic, which contributed to rigid orthodoxies in Islam. Arkoun decried the monopolization of religious interpretation by modern governments, the ulama — Muslim leaders classically trained in Qur’anic interpretation — and Islamist movements, all in the service of their respective political projects. Though he sympathized with reformers, he also criticized them for failing to address the root of the problem: the repression of innovative thought in the Muslim world. Because of these positions, some perceived Arkoun to be against Islam itself, and few Muslim–majority countries welcomed him to speak or sell his books.
It is more difficult to understand what Arkoun was for than what he was against, Lee said. Lee believed him to be an idealist, motivated by faith in the truth of his ideas and in their ability to resurrect a unified Muslim consciousness, or perhaps even a unified human consciousness.
Arkoun expressed this idea through the term remembrer, which Lee translated as “putting back together.” Arkoun hoped his ideas could help make the “Muslim consciousness” whole again, and inclusive of all believers. Arkoun extended his inclusiveness to the “Peoples of the Book”—meaning Muslims, Jews, and Christians—who he saw as fundamentally united in belief.
Asking how Arkoun’s treatment of the Qur’an fit into his objective of “putting back together” Islam, Lee pointed to the critical distinction Arkoun made between the prophetic moment of Qur’anic revelation, and the ensuing compilation of the mushaf, or Closed Official Corpus (in Arkoun’s terminology). Because of the gap between revelation and text, Arkoun approached the Qur’anic text as a literary document to be analyzed with modern interpretive tools, in order to remembrer the truth of the prophetic moment that preceded it.
Lee used two examples of Arkoun’s exegesis to illustrate his application of theory in practice: the Fatiha—the statement of faith that begins the Qur’an—and sura 18 (The Cave).
Summarizing Arkoun’s reading of the Fatiha, Lee emphasized his multilayered analysis. Arkoun applied linguistic, historical, and anthropological analyses to understand the language of the text, its changing interpretations over time, and the society in which it was revealed. Arkoun concluded that the text holds a plurality of equally valid meanings and that the “truth” is found in infinite plurality itself.
Lee’s second example, The Cave, yielded a different set of observations from Arkoun. Observing that the long sura does not cohere in theme or narrative, Arkoun problematized traditional readings, such as al–Tabari’s, which sought a unified interpretation. Arkoun blamed such forced readings on “Islamic Reason,” which sacrificed rich symbolism in favor of logic and rationale.
Based on his own readings of the text, Arkoun concluded that Qur’anic interpretation and its edifice of “Islamic Reason” have historically been related to worldly power struggles. By contextualizing those interpretations in history, without denying their validity, he sought to liberate the Qur’an.
Lee’s concluding remarks drew attention to the intellectual risks Arkoun took by attacking the inherited tradition of interpretation, as well as contemporary political regimes and movements that appropriate religion for ideological aims. Opposed to these abuses of Islam, Arkoun urged Muslims to challenge received knowledge and reopen the realm of ideas that Islamic tradition has rendered “unthought” and “unthinkable,” such as the distinction between the compiled Qur’an and the original revelation. Arkoun believed that, through reassembling (remembrer) Muslim tradition by accepting all its past and potential iterations, the Peoples of the Book and humanity as a whole could be brought together.Back to the top.